This Week in Doonesbury: “We’re Not Going Anywhere.”

This week’s Doonesbury is a powerful comment on a contemporary political movement, the emergence of which over the last few weeks was both long overdue and largely unexpected. Gun-control activism has attracted the energy and attention of America’s youth in the wake of the Parkland shootings. This movement was long overdue because the stakes are so high: accounts of American mass shootings blur together as greedy politicians and lobbyists and firearms manufacturers profit from an insane domestic arms race. It was unexpected because until Parkland, it really seemed as if those Americans who understand the importance of the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment had resigned themselves to the fact that, given the political strength of their opposition, they were fighting a lost cause. If twenty dead children and their teachers at Sandy Hook weren’t going to change the country’s moral calculus, many seemed to reason, nothing could.

Then Parkland happened and the people with the most at stake in the gun debate – the kids who go to school every day wondering if it might be their turn to die at the hands of an overarmed, enraged young man – took charge, and told their teachers, principals and parents and the politicians, lobbyists and gun nuts that they’d had enough. Their hashtag, #NeverAgain, has joined #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter as an online reflection of grassroots movements that are presenting a profound challenge to American structures of power.

Beyond recognizing the importance of the movement sparked by the Parkland students, the 1 April strip plays on a theme that has been central to Trudeau’s work for decades – his generation’s reckoning with its history, especially the question of how the Boomers failed to follow through on, and ultimately lost, the ideals that had driven them to challenge the establishment in their youth.

I have an ambivalent relationship with the Boomers. I’m a student of Boomer-era history (I wrote my dissertation on 1960s radicalism) and a I’m lifelong consumer of Boomer culture. Their generation made huge strides towards of creating new political, social and cultural freedoms. At the same time, as someone living in a world where so much of the 1968 generation’s vision of a better day has yet to be realized, I have a healthy dose of resentment towards a generation that, like their forebears, will not relax their stranglehold on political and cultural power, and will not make room for a younger generation with new energy and new ideas. This week’s strip takes that tension head-on.

Sunday’s strip begins with Mark prepping for an interview with one of the Parkland activists. As the interview is wrapping up, Mark asks a question that is completely dismissive of the dedication the young man and and his peers have shown as they have fought the political establishment: “[Having] seen how Washington really works, are you kids ready to call it quits?” Mark’s guest replies that, regardless of the patronizing attitudes that Mark has just demonstrated, these kids “are in this for good, [and] won’t stop fighting until there’s real change!” At that moment, a transformation occurs: Mark sees his past self in the young man sitting in front of him, and is forced to confront his, and his generation’s, failure to follow through on the values they embraced decades ago. That penultimate panel, with present-day Mark looking into the eyes of his enraged younger self, wondering how he lost the passion that drives the Parkland kids, ranks among the most moving moments in Doonesbury history.

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Mark confronts his past. Doonesbury, 1 April 2018

This is the second time in recent months that Mark’s studio has been the setting for a flashback that puts the politics of today in dialogue with those of Trudeau’s youth: on 22 October 2017, Trudeau linked the behaviour of the current occupant of the White House to that of a previously-disgraced president by revisiting one of Doonesbury’s most iconic panels (Here’s the post I wrote about that strip). Yet while GBT might be feeling a little sentimental in our troubled times, his generation’s understanding of its past has been a Doonesbury touchstone for decades. One Doonesbury staple that lets readers trace the Boomers coming to terms with their history is the periodic decade revival parties hosted at Walden. I’ll be looking at later fin-de-decade shindigs later, but it’s the first of two sixties revival parties, held in March 1974 (the second was in 1977), that I want to focus on here. The arc balanced silly fun and black humour: the president of Walden College arrived dressed as himself from five years earlier, ready to negotiate with student protestors occupying his office; other guests showed up as wounded Vietnam vets and Charles Manson, reminding us, contrary to the images of “the Summer of Love” and naked flower children dancing in the mud at Woodstock, the sixties were a fundamentally dark time.

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At the Walden sixties revival party, Nicole is appalled at some of the costume choices. Doonesbury, 10 December 1974.

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…meanwhile, President King relives the glory days of the sixties. Doonesbury, 11 December 1974.

But it’s a moment between Mike and Mark that foreshadows the sense of generational self-disillusionment that Trudeau addressed in this week’s strip. Mark is dressed as his activist self – black armband, his head bandaged after being beaten by the pigs – and Mike, the ultimate middle-of-the-road liberal, is one of  “the Best and the Brightest,” John F. Kennedy’s team of intellectuals whose policy recommendations help lead America into the Vietnam quagmire. At Mark’s request, Mike recites his paraphrased version of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (the actual passage reads: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”). The two young men laugh warmly at the passage, fondly recalling the youthful optimism it encapsulates. Their laughter, however, quickly gives way to a grim understanding: in 1974, with Nixon embroiled in a scandal that would politically disillusion a generation and the war in Vietnam an unmitigated and still-unresolved disaster, it was clear that a generation charged with making their nation and the world a better place had failed to meet the challenge and had lost something vital in the process. Forty-four years later, in an NPR studio, facing a new generation determined to leave the world a better place than what they inherited, the bitter taste of failure still haunts Mark, and it still haunts Garry Trudeau.

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“The Best and the Brightest.” Doonesbury, 12 December 1974.

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“What’s happened to us?” Doonesbury, 13 December 1974.

And yet, as always, another generation is ready to do what has to be done – push the old folks out of the way and work towards necessary change. In The Wretched of the Earth, the Martinican philosopher Frantz Fanon, discussing the generation that comes to power when colonialism gives way to independence, wrote that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” Trudeau may well be bitter about his generation’s betrayals of their youthful ideals and mission, especially in these dark times. But more importantly, he hasn’t lost his faith in the energy and vision of youth: the Parkland kids may have come out of nowhere, but they’ve discovered their mission, and they aren’t going anywhere.

Look! Rice Paddies!: Doonesbury Goes to War, Part II. Vietnam, 1972

In my last “Long Strange Trip” post, way back in October, I wrote about B.D.’s time in ROTC. Those strips made me reevaluate how I thought about how Garry Trudeau wrote about war. I had remembered GBT’s Vietnam-era strips as being lighthearted and goofy in comparison to the grittier and darker approach that he took to writing about the “War on Terror.” In fact, the arc about B.D.’s summer at ROTC was full of dark, disturbing satire that underscored the links between American patriotism and American violence. B.D., the personification of jingoistic American patriotism, thrives in ROTC, an environment where brutality and destruction are encouraged. It was only when B.D. arrived in Vietnam that Trudeau took a softer approach to satirizing American militarism, one that focused less on the brutality of military violence and more on how the first-hand experience affected B.D., setting the stage for him to later become GBT’s mouthpiece for addressing the complexities of American military policy.

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Moore and Kubert, Tales of the Green Beret, undated strip.

An explicitly anti-war comic strip was, and remains, a rarity in the funny pages. While Beetle Bailey’s depictions of military life are a mainstay of American comics, the strip never addresses the question of violence apart from Sgt. Snorkel’s routine pummeling of Beetle. During the Vietnam era, there was at least one comic strip that could be classified as pro-war. In the mid-1960s, Tales of the Green Beret, written by Robin Moore and drawn by Joe Kubert, brought the Vietnam war to America’s funny pages with adventure stories that celebrated American military values.* I’ve only read a few scattered examples of Tales of the Green Beret, but Mark James Estern, in A History of Underground Comics, points to the strip as a rare example of a strip with an explicitly political orientation that was published only because its views were in line with those of the media establishment. Doonesbury, of course, along with Pogo, was a critical exception to that rule, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few years after Tales of the Green Beret’s run ended, growing discontent about Vietnam opened up space on the funny pages for comics artists to directly address the war in Vietnam through an explicitly anti-war lens.

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Doonesbury, 31 January 1972

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Doonesbury 1 February 1972

On January 31, 1972, B.D. announced that he was leaving Walden College to fight in Vietnam. B.D. is a fervent patriot, a strong anti-communist, and a committed ROTC trainee, but, notwithstanding the rationale he originally presented to his roommate he wants Mike to “grow up strong and happy in a great land free of communism and tyranny”— his reason for going to war was more practical than political: he needed to get out of writing a term paper. This bit of silliness signaled a shift in GBT’s approach to writing about war, allowing him to move away from the brutal approach he had taken in the ROTC arc and also opening the door to a more complex portrayal of the character at the centre of the story. B.D.’s experience in Vietnam were the first steps in his transformation from a John-Wayne-worshipping, Goldwater Republican jock to Trudeau’s principal voice for exposing the effects of American militarism on the bodies and minds of the men and women tasked with fighting America’s wars.

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Doonesbury, 7 February 1972

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Doonesbury 8 February 1972

The more light-hearted approach that Trudeau established with the term paper gag carried over into his treatment of B.D.’s combat experience. As B.D. gets closer to the war, the recruit who disemboweled a training dummy while screaming “KILL” at the top of his lungs takes on a childlike, gleeful anticipation. When he sees rice paddies from the plane, he points and yells like a little kid flying over Disneyland or Manhattan; on his first day of combat, he proudly writes to his parents to tell them that he has his “own bunker and machine gun,” sounding more like a kid showing off a new bike than a soldier. Once he arrives in the field, the violence that B.D. encounters – and dishes out –is cartoonish as compared to the bloodthirstiness that characterized the ROTC arc. After dinging him in the helmet with a round, an enemy sniper responds to B.D.’s ensuing curses by shooting him again – with a suction-cup arrow. A few days later, B.D. coolly shoots a Vietcong fighter who proceeds to lament his fate with a quote from Hamlet before he sneaks back into the bush, giggling. This sharp change in mood softens Trudeau’s message, but it’s arguably a necessary softening, as the logical extension of the ROTC “KILL” strip would have been for Trudeau to have B.D. reenact something akin to the My Lai massacre, something that surely would have led to the end of his career as a syndicated cartoonist.

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Doonesbury, 11 February 1972

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Doonesbury 14 February 1972

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Doonesbury 15 February 1972

The following strip does engage in a pointed critique of the American military, showing an officer blatantly falsifying an enemy body count. This strip might speak to an emerging gap in B.D.’s understanding of the war, a conflict between his ideological belief in the justice of the cause and the reality on Vietnamese soil. I think B.D.’s disgruntled look in the final panel can be read as a sign of his growing awareness that the war is far more more complicated than what his Manichean political outlook allowed for. And even if that’s not the case and I’m reading too much into a gag about routine military bullshit, what happened to B.D. over the next little while did force him to re-evaluate his core beliefs. On 16 February, a week after landing in Vietnam, B.D., separated from his unit and lost in the jungle, had a serendipitous encounter with a Viet Cong fighter who would, over time, play a key role in what is Trudeau’s best work as a writer: the transformation of B.D. from a dumb jock and a one-dimensional parody of American militaristic patriotism into the most complex character in Trudeau’s stable. It’s not a process that happened overnight; like in real life, B.D.’s understanding of the politics of American militarism shifted gradually and unevenly with new experiences, contexts, and insights. Next time, we’ll look at how that process began.
*I’ve seen the title of the strip rendered both as “Beret” and “Berets.”

“Violence is as American as Cherry Pie”: Doonesbury Goes to War, Pt. I

When the curtain falls on Doonesbury, the ensuing retrospectives are bound to focus on Garry Trudeau’s chronicling of the War on Terror and its effects on the men and women who were asked to put their lives and their well-being at risk for a fundamentally flawed set of foreign policies. GBT has used the experiences of characters like B.D., Toggle, Ray Hightower, and Melissa Wheeler to promote awareness of the physical, psychological, and social challenges facing a generation asked to fight a poorly-conceived war in Afghanistan and a criminal war in Iraq. Beyond chronicling the effects of war on two generations of Americans, GBT has taken on an activist role, supporting veterans and giving them a space where they can make their voices heard on the issues that affect them.
Trudeau has written about virtually every war America has fought since the strip began in 1970 (and even a few that it hasn’t, such as when Duke, as governor of American Samoa, called on the Marines to invade the territory). Before re-reading the strip, my memory told me that the War on Terror led Trudeau to inject a dark tone in his writing about the military that had largely been absent in his previous work. The arc in which B.D. lost a leg in Iraq was arguably the most chilling thing ever to appear on the funny pages. Melissa’s experience with sexual assault in Afghanistan reveals ugly truths about the armed services that many Americans are uncomfortable acknowledging. Compare those horrors to B.D.’s experience in Vietnam: he joined up in order to get out of writing a term paper, and the highlight of his time in-country was a series of comic misadventures with Phred the VC terrorist leading to him earning his first Purple Heart, not for being wounded under enemy fire, but for cutting his hand on a beer can.
However, re-reading Doonesbury’s first years, I’m seeing how, when Trudeau took an unflinching look at the human costs of the War on Terror, he was building on a longer history of writing critically about the effects of war on American society and on the people that were at the receiving end of American power. Trudeau did use B.D.’s Vietnam experience to have a little fun writing about the war in a more lighthearted way. But, more importantly, he focused a satirical gaze on the violence inherent in American culture and demonstrated how American violence had tragic results for both the American and the Vietnamese people. Vietnam was, for Trudeau, as it was for the generation he belonged to and wrote about, an episode that revealed ugly truths about the country he loves. Trudeau spent decades trying to understand and come to terms with Vietnam. Nearly half a century on, Vietnam still resonates in Doonesbury’s America; one of the central characters for the past twenty-five years, Kim Doonesbury, formerly Kim Rosenthal, was the last orphan to be airlifted from Vietnam at the end of the war.
Over the next little while, I’m going to look at how Trudeau wrote about Vietnam. From the strip’s first days, Trudeau used his privileged position as a widely-syndicated newspaper comics artist as a way to bring a strong anti-war message to a key part of American mass culture, the funny pages.
Trudeau’s first mention of the Vietnam war came about six weeks into syndication. Mark Slackmeyer, suspended from Walden College after occupying the university’s president’s office, is planning to enjoy some downtime, but his hopes are dashed by the appearance of a “Greetings” letter from the draft board. The dreaded draft board letter made another appearance six months later; in the intervening time, the “beautiful cats” at the Selective Service had gotten remarkably hipper.

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Mark’s draft notice arrives. Doonesbury, 5 December 1970

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The beautiful cats at the draft board come after a Walden graduate. Doonesbury, 1 June 1971

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Unhappy days, indeed. Doonesbury, 2 June 1971.

While these two strips hint at an important dynamic in how the Vietnam war was experienced by young Americans – the ever-present anxiety among those fortunate enough to attend university and thereby avoid the draft that they might lose that status – Trudeau, surprisingly, largely overlooked the draft. Instead, as he thought about students being shipped off to war, Trudeau focused on a key link between American militarism and higher education, the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC). For Trudeau, ROTC revealed, and fostered, the violence deeply woven into the American character, a theme he would return to when he began writing directly about Southeast Asia.
The summer after his freshman year, B.D. began his ROTC training. ROTC was always in the cards for B.D. Alongside resonating with his pro-military/anti-Red ideological outlook, ROTC was probably the only way he could afford to attend a liberal arts college like Walden. After all, he’s the son of a working-class immigrant family (his parents emigrated from Poland) whose father is chronically unemployed. Trudeau later turned Walden into the butt of numerous jokes about for-profit “diploma mills” that trade meaningless degrees for crippling debt, but in 1971, B.D. was exchanging service to his country for a shot at social mobility his parents didn’t have.

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B.D. was always army-bound. Doonesbury, 26 July 1971.

H. Rap Brown of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee famously pointed out that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” B.D. may have seen ROTC, at least in part, as a chance at a life that would otherwise be unattainable for him, but Trudeau used B.D.’s ROTC training to comment on how violence, especially in its militaristic form, was central to American identity. B.D. represents that subset of American youth who did not buy into the counterculture or New Left politics. He’s a straight-arrow, all-American quarterback, a Republican, and a patriot’s patriot, who has no sympathy for the anti-war left B.D. rejects Mark’s New Left radicalism, but he lives his politics as much as his ideological opposite. With B.D., the huddle becomes a forum for the politics of Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” He will interrupt a huddle to allow his team to acknowledge an Air Force plane flying overhead, and once called for a beating to be delivered to a dissenting protestor. B.D.’s love of military violence is America’s love for military violence.

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B.D. on the anti-war movement. Doonesbury, 1 March 1971

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B.D. doesn’t care for dissent on campus or on the field. Doonesbury, 29 December 1970.

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A patriotic huddle. Doonesbury, 17 December 1970.

B.D. began his ROTC training on and Trudeau spared no time in engaging in some of the darkest satire imaginable in a mainstream newspaper comic strip. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and M*A*S*H* satirized the insanity of military life and the basic incompetence of Army bureaucracy; Doonesbury focused on portraying the military, and thereby American culture, as sadistically violent. We learn that ROTC is not really about imbuing young men with values of “leadership”and “discipline,” but teaching them “to be methodical machines of destruction and ruin.” This is exactly what B.D. was looking for; he proudly writes his parents to tell them that he has already learned how to “shoot, lacerate, knife, blow up, detonate, and liquidate” as required.

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The truth. Doonesbury, 12 June 1971.

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Skills training. Doonesbury, 14 June 1971.

B.D. takes to military life, and the accompanying opportunities for acts of heroic violence, much as he takes to the opportunities for controlled mayhem presented on Saturday afternoons on the college gridiron. In fact, one officer is concerned that B.D. might be a little too eager to put his training to practical use.

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It looks like fun. Doonesbury, 16 June 1971.

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B.D. develops a reputation. Doonesbury, 19 June 1971.

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Too much of a good thing. Doonesbury, 18 June 1971

By the end of the summer, however, the commanders put aside their fears that B.D. might be just a little bit too enthusiastic, and, in a nod to the spectacular aspects of America’s favourite pastime, give him the equivalent of an Oscar for the “Best Performance as a Gung-Ho G.I,” an award our hero turns down because – in an early appearance of the normalization of violent militarism as an occupation like any other – he’s “just trying to do his job.”

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“Just trying to do his job.” Doonesbury, 2 August 1971.

Over the next little while, I’ll talk more about how Trudeau showed his readers just how nasty a job that could be.